By Joey Nolfi
June 12, 2020 at 02:00 PM EDT

Though it attracts hordes of viewers around the world, ushers thousands through the gates of three international DragCon gatherings, and moves millions in merchandise sales each year, the RuPaul's Drag Race economy wasn't always a reality for the queer performers now basking in its global spotlight.

"There was no economy of Drag Race when we first started," season 3 competitor Mariah Balenciaga tells EW in a new Around the Table series interview for our latest digital cover featuring the All-Stars 5 cast. "There was no management, no talent agencies, and no representation. [We were scammed] for so many deposits [by people] pretending to be agents or management, or who might've represented a couple of girls in the pageant circuit. [Before Drag Race], the pageant girls were top tier in the pay scale."

RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Exclusive EW Portraits
Credit: Mariah Balenciaga for EW

Balenciaga, who first competed on Drag Race back in 2010 ahead of her 2020 All-Stars return, says the show's budding success was still new to her and her fellow castmates — all of whom had to learn for themselves how to commodify their art for the series' mainstream audience.

"When we came along, we didn’t know what our market value was or what our worth was. We didn’t know how much the clubs were bringing in based on our names being on a reality show," Balenciaga continues, referencing other contemporary reality show casts, like the stars of Jersey Shore, whom she says were pulling in higher rates for personal appearances despite doing a fraction of the work. "We had to entertain, do our own hair, do our own makeup, and we were begging for the small rate and ration we were getting," she says, "[but] Drag Race has given a legitimacy to the business of drag."

Fellow All-Stars 5 queen (and season 10 alum) Miz Cracker elaborates, speculating that "Drag Race has created, over 10-plus years, an economy so that girls that are not part of the Drag Race family have more visibility because people are more interested in drag.

"It did create an economy of expectation," Cracker explains, "so that girls could say, ‘Hey, I’m worth something as a drag queen. Whether or not I’ve been on a show, I deserve that X amount of money.' That wasn’t there before."

RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Exclusive EW Portraits
Credit: Miz Cracker for EW

Cracker's season 10 and All-Stars 5 sister, Blair St. Clair — now a successful recording artist whose 2019 single "Easy Love" launched a landmark publishing deal between drag management company Producer Entertainment Group and Warner Music — agrees: "Maybe a few years ago or even now still today, if someone asks you your occupation, you say 'I'm a drag queen, and they may think that it's a cheap profession. They say, 'What do you really do? What did you go to school for?' [And] Drag Race has enabled us to show that we are artists, and it's brought us together as a community."

Watch the RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars 5 queens discuss drag's worldwide economy above, and read their full EW digital cover story here.

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RuPaul's Drag Race

RuPaul — as host, mentor, and creative inspiration — decides who's in and who's out.

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